- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

President Obama told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak Tuesday that the U.S. government is planning to release a comprehensive blueprint for Middle East peace talks next month, the Egyptian government said after a meeting at the White House

Mr. Mubarak’s first trip to the United States in six years focused on the effort to restart talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the 81-year-old Mr. Mubarak’s visit also raised questions from critics about whether the White House has abandoned attempts begun by the Bush administration to challenge the aging leader on human rights and democratic governance inside his country.

Despite calls from Mr. Mubarak in advance of the meeting for a comprehensive peace plan, Mr. Obama did not disclose any sweeping proposals.

“There has been movement in the right direction,” Mr. Obama told reporters in the Oval Office, with Mr. Mubarak sitting to his right.

But Egyptian Ambassador Soliman Awaad, Mr. Mubarak’s spokesman, said that after the meeting Mr. Obama promised a plan by next month, following meetings next week between American and Israeli officials.

“President Obama said that hopefully after … next week there will be a final blueprint to be declared in the course of next month, in September,” Mr. Awaad said.

He also issued a call for the United States to take the helm in leading the peace process.

“We do not need more literature on the peace process, but we do need to move ahead. What is needed now is for Americans to declare a plan to achieve peace in the Middle East,” Mr. Awaad said.

The White House did not immediately confirm or dispute Mr. Awaad’s assertion that it will have a plan out next month, but such a proposal from the Obama administration has been rumored in Washington for some time.

On the ground in the Middle East, Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Atias said no new settlement construction has been authorized in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office five months ago.

Mr. Obama has called on Israel to stop all settlement construction in order for peace talks to move forward. But he and his surrogates labored Tuesday to show they expect action and compromise also from the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries such as Egypt.

“My hope is that we are going to see not just movement from the Israelis, but also from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security, from Arab states that show their willingness to engage Israel,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Mubarak said only that he will not accept “a temporary solution” to the peace process, pushing again for a comprehensive plan.

But Mr. Awaad said Egypt and other Arab states are not willing to take “confidence-building measures” toward Israel unless the Jewish state’s settlement freeze includes the natural growth of established settlements.

“The Arabs won’t be encouraged to take such a step and to show gestures for confidence-building with Israelis until the Israelis take some concrete steps,” Mr. Awaad said. “It’s like an egg-and-chicken situation: Who comes first?”

One obstacle to a peace deal may be the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. Mr. Obama’s relationship with Mr. Netanyahu is tenuous, and discontent with the Obama administration has continued to build within the Israeli government.

For his part, Mr. Mubarak’s hope to play peacemaker by bringing together the Palestinians faces the same challenge it has for the past few years: The Palestinians are split between the U.S.-backed Fatah party and the militant group Hamas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Fatah party, is viewed as too weak a leader by many to bring together the many factions within the Palestinian people.

In light of that, some in the Israeli government are pressing for a Palestinian leader who currently is serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison for murder during the second intifada to be released. Marwan Barghouti was elected to Fatah’s central committee, a key decision-making body, in a recent election, and some on the Israeli side believe he is the man who is capable of uniting the Palestinians behind a peace deal.

Mr. Awaad said the Egyptian government believes Mr. Barghouti should be released.

As Mr. Obama and Mr. Mubarak met, about 50 Coptic Christians protested outside the White House against what they said is an escalation of violence and discrimination against the religious minority in Egypt.

Regional experts also criticized the Obama administration for stepping back from attempts during the Bush administration to pressure Egypt toward greater democratization and human rights progress. The White House has not protested the arrest of Egyptian dissidents, and it has cut funding for democracy promotion and to civil society groups.

Experts surmised that the Obama administration feels that Egypt’s cooperation on stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons and on uniting a fractured Palestinian movement are the top-line items they should ask for in return for $1.5 billion in aid that goes annually to Cairo.

“In exchange for cooperation on key mutual interests — the peace process and the Iranian threat — Washington appears to have shelved longstanding concerns over internal Egyptian governance,” wrote David Schenker and J. Scott Carpenter, analysts for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank that leans favorably toward Israeli concerns.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs took issue with the characterization.

“I would not agree with the premise that we have somehow swept under the rug … the notion of human rights or greater democracy in the world. Obviously, those are important foreign policy goals that are in the national interests of this country,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Some do argue that Egypt’s stability, whatever the cost, is in fact desirable and needed in a region where the authority of the state is under assault from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Somalia.

Mr. Mubarak said that he is moving toward greater openness and freedoms in his country, but Mr. Awaad said that “moving too fast” in this direction “might result in giving control to radicals.”

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